Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) president, Bill Campbell, kicked off the 2020 annual general meeting last week by acknowledging the disastrous weather challenges, and calling governments to action.
“We began in the spring with dry conditions and feed shortages,” Campbell said. “We ended the year with excess moisture and crops still out in the field.”
That’s just how weather goes, but it underlines the need for better tools to help farmers manage these unavoidable risks, he said.
“Unpredictable weather conditions and other unmanageable risk that affects our profitability is why we have been calling on provincial and federal governments to strengthen our business risk programs for producers,” he said.
Campbell, who was acclaimed to another term at the helm of the group during the AGM, has long advocated for revisiting the reference margin trigger for AgriStability. That was lowered to 70 per cent of reference margin, from 85 per cent, in 2013. Critics say that’s made the program unresponsive and farmer participation has fallen sharply as a result.
Campbell continued building on the theme with his remarks on the carbon tax. There he stressed the need to make governments understand how unfair it is that farmers are burdened with this tax while greenhouses are exempted.
Campbell says that it’s a tough issue, but he’s optimistic that the message that KAP is putting out regarding the carbon tax will eventually resonate and provide results.
“We continue to bring it up to the provincial government at every opportunity we have,” he said. “We have to present our case. We have to show the significance of what the carbon tax is costing farmers and how it affects our competitiveness.”
Campbell says that message seems to be getting through at the federal level too, noting the minister of agriculture and the deputy prime minister are aware of the issue, and other federal parties have staked out their stances on it.
“I believe there will be continual pressure,” he said.
He says he would prefer if there could be a faster way to the finish line, but he doesn’t like to force timelines on the issue because they make for disappointment.
He said he was pleased with the movement by the provincial government with respect to phasing out the school tax on farms, but said that the 12-year time the province has set out needs to be reduced.
Campbell is glad that there has been some movement by the federal government to attempt to restore agricultural trade with China. Nevertheless, he says more needs to be done to improve the trade climate with China or new deals need to be forged with other trading partners to replace the market share lost as a result of diplomatic tensions between the countries.
He raised concerns about provincially mandated Class 1 driver licensing. He says KAP supports road safety, but that farmers need to be part of the discussion and urged members to become engaged in that discussion.
Campbell says that KAP is concerned about the changes to the agriculture’s Crown lands program that were instituted this fall. He said he is looking forward to speaking with the province about ways this process can be improved.
“Specifically we are seeking first right of renewal and compensation for improvements made if the land does change hands,” he said.
He closed the address by raising the issue of mental health of farmers, particularly when conditions are as uncontrollably bad as they were in 2019.
Speaking later with the Co-operator on the sidelines of the meeting, he said Manitoba farmers have demonstrated an ability to cope with challenges, with anxiety reaching a peak in the fall, with farmers wondering how much crop would remain out. But he added that since the freeze, most have been able to put the worst of it behind them and moved on to planning how to manage it this coming spring.
But while that late-fall anxiety has ebbed, there’s a keen sense of realism that 2019 will roll over into 2020. This ties into the mental health issue that he brought up in his address.
“Every individual will be unique with how they cope,” he said. “Some are able to turn the switch off. Others are going to have that continual mental stress.”
He encouraged farmers to seek help. “Reach out to your neighbours. You’re not alone. Talk it out.”
He also noted farmers are paying close attention to spring flooding forecasts. It has been a dry winter so far, but winter is far from over.
“We still have the chance for more snowfall,” he cautioned. “A late-spring rainfall of a significant amount would be catastrophic.”
Another concern is spring logistics.
“We have to get the crop off of it before we seed it,” he explained. “How we cope with that and how we get our inputs in place is going to be a huge challenge for 2020.”
Another concern unique to Manitoba farmers is the water management issue. He says that because Lake Winnipeg falls within the border of Manitoba and the health of that lake is a major concern, Manitoba farmers often take on a heavier burden of responsibility for the problem than is likely deserved. He pointed out that the watershed that drains into Lake Winnipeg is huge. It covers much of Saskatchewan and the entire Red River Valley.
“It appears we have greater restrictions to be able to farm than other areas do,” he said.
Campbell would like to see more monitoring of water coming into the province.
“We need to have more precise and accurate data from where the contributions are coming from.”
He also is concerned that the City of Winnipeg is being let off the hook.
“To suggest that there isn’t any water run-off inside the perimeter that doesn’t make it into the lake doesn’t make sense,” he said. “To suggest that Manitoba agriculture is going to solve the problem when nobody else does is unrealistic.”